Death in Venice (1912) is a novella by Thomas Mann. It is the story of Gustave von Aschenbach, a successful German writer, who has lived a life of personal discipline and dedication to his art. He is a renowned novelist, who has devoted intense effort toward having a successful career as a writer. He lives a solitary life. His wife is dead, his daughter is married.
One day, Aschenbach takes a walk from his home in Munich to a park that leads to a cemetery. As he is waiting for a streetcar to take him back home, he becomes aware of a tall stranger who is watching him from the chapel in the cemetery. The stranger seems to be staring at him, and has an expression of hostility.
Aschenbach feels a desire to leave the cold spring climate of Munich, and to travel to the warmer climate of the south. He takes a train to Trieste, where he stays for only a day, and then continues his journey. He travels to an island resort in the Adriatic, where he stays for ten days, before leaving on a ship for Venice.
On the ship, the passengers include a group of young clerks, among whom is an old man wearing a wig and false teeth, who is dressed in the clothes of a dandy. The old man is making a ridiculous and ghastly attempt to appear as a younger man. As the ship arrives in Venice, the young-old man says a drunken farewell to Aschenbach, who ignores him.
Aschenbach boards a gondola, but discovers that the gondolier is taking him out to sea, instead of toward the city. The gondolier, in fact, resembles the stranger at the cemetery in Munich, and the gondola resembles a black coffin, and thus the voyage in the gondola becomes symbolic of the journey of life toward death.
The gondolier explains to Aschenbach that a vaporetto will not carry luggage from the steamboat landing, so the gondolier instead takes him to another landing. Aschenbach’s luggage is unloaded from the gondola at the landing, but the gondolier leaves suddenly, because he does not have a license, and does not want to be arrested.
Aschenbach arrives at the Hotel des Bains, which has a terrace facing the sea. He takes a walk along the promenade near the shore.
At the hotel, he encounters a Polish family, including a mother, her three daughters, and son. Her son is a beautiful, long-haired boy, who is about fourteen years old. Aschenbach is attracted to the boy, whom he sees as an ideal of perfect beauty. Aschenbach discovers that the boy’s name is Tadzio.
Aschenbach is fascinated by Tadzio. He continues to observe him. They do not exchange any words. But Aschenbach’s attraction to the boy soon becomes a hopeless passion. Aschenbach’s admiration for Tadzio, whom he sees as an example of artistic beauty, becomes a consuming desire, a hidden longing.
Aschenbach, the consummate artist, is overwhelmed by his attraction to the fourteen-year-old boy, and cannot transform his admiration for Tadzio into a motivation to produce art. For Aschenbach, beauty means form and discipline, but his attraction to Tadzio makes him feel the urge to surrender to the uncontrolled, unreasoning impulses of sensual desire. His attraction to Tadzio becomes a paralyzing obsession which propels Aschenbach toward his own doom.
Aschenbach follows and watches Tadzio, without speaking to him. Although Aschenbach learns that there is a cholera epidemic in Venice, he finds himself unable to leave the city, because he is obsessed by his longing for Tadzio.
Aschenbach attempts to recover his own youth, by allowing a barber to dye his hair, not realizing that this makes him similar to the young-old man whom he had found to be so ridiculous on the ship to Venice.
One day, Aschenbach follows Tadzio’s family through the city. Aschenbach is hungry and thirsty afterward, and eats some overripe strawberries at a fruit shop.
A few days later, he becomes ill and dies, after he sits on a chair at the beach, watching Tadzio walk to the sea.
Themes of Death in Venice include the conflicts between life and death, youth and aging, growth and decay. Aschenbach portrays the conflict between self-discipline and self-indulgence, restraint and spontaneity, morality and immorality, reason and emotion.
Mann examines the conflict between the impulses for order or disorder, form or chaos, rationality or irrationality, and shows how the interaction of these impulses may be important to the personality of the artist. He also shows how important it may be for these contradictory impulses to be reconciled.
Mann is influenced by Nietzsche’s distinction between the Apollonian and Dionysian impulses in art. The Apollonian impulse is toward order, form, rationality, and control. The Dionysian impulse is toward disorder, irrationality, spontaneity, and emotional intensity. Thus, works of art may be produced by the interaction or conflict between these Apollonian and Dionsyian impulses.
For Aschenbach, Tadzio is an ideal of artistic beauty, representing an aesthetic concept of creative form. When Aschenbach, at the end of the novella, sees Tadzio walking on the shore, he sees the contrast between Tadzio’s form and the formless background of the sea. Aschenbach, as he nears death, is able to accept the conflicting aspects of form and formlessness, of order and chaos, as ‘an immensity of richest expectation,’ a vast realm of creative possibility.